Leaving the Nest

I was 17 years old and headed into my senior year of high school when my youngest sister was born. I remember feeling excited for Elly to come. But I also spent a lot of Elly’s first year of life worried. I worried that she and my sister Libby (who at that time was only 1) would forget me or never really know me.

What would bind me together with these two toddling souls after I left the nest? What would form the fabric of our relationship? Would I ever feel like a sister to them? 

In some ways, my fears held merit, and in other ways, they didn’t. What has shaped my relationship with Libby and Elly is a different set of memories than what shaped my relationship with my siblings Allison and Steve, who are closer to my age. And yet, the uniqueness of a sibling relationship holds between the five of us—Elly, Libby, Steve, Allison, me. The life I share with these four souls is something entirely apart from what is shared with anyone else. 

A couple of months ago, I flew to Texas to celebrate Libby graduating from high school. The trip felt surreal, watching Lib pass another milestone in her life that I remember so well in my own. Lib and El keep claiming ground for themselves with grace and poise, confidence and clarity.

Together, they are ushering our family into a new season of maturity.

And I’m finding it’s just as poignant to watch Libby leave as it was to leave myself.

Because Libby and Elly so closely echo the age gap and dynamic between Allison and me, watching Libby prepare for college and Elly process the coming loss has unlocked a lot of conversation.

“I miss the purity of that kind of worry,” Allison confessed to me last week. “Does that make any sense? I miss the safety and simplicity of a world where my biggest concern was you leaving all of us.”

I laughed. Of all my siblings, Allison was the only one who had been angry at me for going to college. But together, she and I came to access a special truth: there’s a connection that can only be shared through the discovery of your own unique path and world. Leaving home drew Allison and me so much closer. Elly and Libby don’t know that yet. 

For now, Libby is all nostalgia, looking to the relationships of her high school days that have been so beautiful, trying to drink in every last drop before life shifts in ways she won’t be able to take back. 

And Elly is all future, looking to the coming 24 months like a long, empty corridor, dreading a new kind of aloneness that none of her siblings have ever felt in quite the same way. 

Meanwhile, Steve, Allison, and I hover at varying distances from the Johnson nest, knowing each girl will find her way to flight, trying to give room so each can jump in her own season. 

This moment for the girls does make me miss the days when my biggest worries were tied to stepping out into the world. When each worry was eventually greeted by catharsis: yes, life is deeper, richer, brighter, and bolder out here. 

On this side of flying, I find building a new nest comes with its own set of worries. The world has grown more known and accessible, but it also feels more threatening. There are winds and predators I can’t control waiting to strike at any moment. And it takes a special kind of brave to settle in and build my ordinary, fragile nest anyway, choosing to believe that if a storm smashes it apart, I will have the strength to build again.

We are, after all, only birds, fragile captives to the wind, called to soar and nest and sing.

Katy (Johnson) Stafford dreams, writes, and occasionally podcasts in the messy middle of life. Newly married, Katy is spending her 30s embracing hope, longing, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called In Love, a memoir about loving your life beyond white picket fences. Katy shares more of her thoughts here, where she cultivates a community for writers and creatives.